At the 2008 Technology Tools for Today Conference, one of the most highly rated breakout sessions was a panel discussion entitled "Mind Mapping Software: A Different Way of Framing Solutions." The success of the session was clearly attributable to the excellent panelists: CFPs Janet Tyler Johnson, Gloria Smith and Don Patrick. Each offered concrete examples of how mind mapping improved their businesses and/or their lives. Since the session generated so much interest, I thought I'd share some observations on the topic.

Although a surprisingly high percentage of the session attendees had at least some familiarity with the concept of mind mapping, many advisors do not. That is a shame, because mind mapping is a technique that seems particularly well suited to the financial advisory practice.

For readers unfamiliar with the term, a mind map is a diagram that usually shows a key word or idea in the center of a page and then expands on it by linking other words, ideas or tasks to it. A mind map can help generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas. It also may help with study, organization, problem solving, decision-making and writing.

Many successful corporations including Amazon, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, 3M and Starbucks use mind mapping software to organize, manage or brainstorm. But up to now, only a handful of intrepid advisory firms have embraced it.

The origins of mind mapping are not clear. Some claim that Tony Buzan, a British author, originated the mind map in the 1970s; others credit Dr. Allan Collin and M. Ross Quillian with creating mind maps in the early 1960s, though there is evidence that similar techniques were used as least as far back as the third century. One thing is certain, however: Buzan refined the technique and subsequently introduced it to millions of readers.

Although mind mapping can be done with a pencil and paper, software can enhance the experience. Comparing paper mind maps with computerized ones is similar to comparing a handwritten report with one prepared on a word processor. With the latter, you can easily rearrange, reformat and correct your document. In many cases, the program will do much of the formatting work for you. It will even check spelling and grammar in your document.

Mind mapping software offers many of the same advantages. Through the use of templates, shortcuts, auto formatting, etc., you can create more elaborate, better-looking mind maps in less time. You can also create hyperlinks, embedded notes and even embedded mind maps within mind maps. In addition, some of the latest software and online applications greatly enhance the collaborative power of mind mapping.

Most experienced mind mappers follow a well-defined sequence during the mapping process. When you start a new map, the recommended procedure is to start by placing the main idea in the middle of the screen. This is called the "central topic." Then supporting ideas, referred to as "main topics" are added in a clockwise fashion, starting at the 1 o'clock position. From the main topics, you can branch off to subtopics.

Once you get the hang of it, editing and enhancing the original mind map become second nature. You drag and drop topics if you want to move them around. You use colors and icons to make maps more visually striking. It is even possible to create hyperlinks to documents, spreadsheets and Web pages so that they are available from right within the map.

So how can mind mapping software help you enhance your practice? As it turns out, the possibilities are limited only by your own imagination and creativity. Let's look at some examples of how advisors are currently using mind maps in their practices.